June 8, 2004
Bloomberg Seeks to Toughen Code for Noise in City
n an ambitious effort to bring succor to New Yorkers tortured by jackhammers, pounding music and the incessant jingles of ice cream trucks, the Bloomberg administration plans to overhaul the city's noise code for the first time in more than three decades, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said yesterday.
The proposed changes would affect a broad range of industries and would let police officers and others crack down on offenders by letting them use their own ears in most cases to judge what constitutes excessive noise, instead of depending on the cumbersome and often impractical noise meters now used to measure decibels.
That change alone would make it easier for the city's police force and noise inspectors to take action against a broad array of noises that have long bedeviled New Yorkers: car alarms, loud motorcycles, vehicles with faulty mufflers and blaring radios.
The legislation contains 45 pages of painstaking detail about sound and its resulting fury, with many areas singled out for enforcement, including these:
¶ Barking dogs would have 5 minutes to cease yapping at night, and 10 minutes during the day. (Currently there is no time limit.)
¶ Roaring air conditioning units, now mostly exempt from noise laws when in clusters, would be subject to stricter standards.
¶ Construction projects would most likely be curtailed on weekends and at night, and the industry would be asked to use equipment to reduce sound, like noise jackets for jackhammers.
¶ Ice cream trucks, accustomed to inching down city streets bleating out-of-tune childhood ditties, would have to lose their soundtracks by 2006, replacing them with the little bells of yore. (Taco trucks would meet the same fate.)
Penalties for violations, which would not change, range from $45 to $25,000.
In stark contrast to the way Mr. Bloomberg has approached other legislation dear to his heart, he decided to consult with City Council leaders and potential opponents to generate support for his proposals, which could ease its passage into law. Among those he sought out for counsel were bar and club owners and the construction industry.
In fact, nightclubs would be given something of a reprieve, as the law would allow them to fix noise problems for their first violation, rather than pay a $3,000 fine. Further, noise emanating from bars and restaurants must be heard from at least 15 feet away and through an open door to draw enforcement action, which will curtail some of the subjectivity currently used in issuing violations.
At the same time, vibrations would also be subject to the proposed law. "We think it is a step in the right direction," said Robert Bookman, a lawyer for the New York Nightlife Association.
The legislation represents a continuation of Mr. Bloomberg's fixation with reducing one of the most chronic quality of life problems in the city. Noise is the still the No. 1 such complaint in New York, well ahead of complaints about landlords and blocked driveways; the city's 311 number receives roughly 1,000 calls about noise each day.
To deal with the problem, the Police Department initiated Operation Silent Night in 2002, singling out 24 high-noise neighborhoods throughout the city and employing intensive enforcement measures. Since its inception, the operation has resulted in 3,706 noise summonses and 33,996 Criminal Court summonses, since noise violators are often charged with other crimes as well.
"We knew all along that Silent Night was only a Band-Aid to a serious problem," Mr. Bloomberg said in a news conference yesterday in Astoria, Queens, explaining what led him to charge the Department of Environmental Protection, which enforces much of the noise code, with revising it.
"Complaints about noise are not frivolous," Mr. Bloomberg said. "Noise disturbs our sleep, prevents people from enjoying their time off work and too often leads to altercations when the police are called in. It can also produce serious hearing impairment, especially for those who work in noisy jobs."
In announcing the proposed rules, Mr. Bloomberg was joined by Mr. Bookman, of the Nightlife Association; the City Council speaker, Gifford Miller; Nancy B. Nadler, director of development for the League for the Hard of Hearing; and Francis X. McArdle, managing director of the General Contractors Association of New York.
Mr. Bloomberg's strategy of consulting potential opponents was a significant departure from the one he employed in announcing his plan to ban smoking in most city businesses: he left the Council more or less out of the loop, letting members learn about it in the newspapers. He also froze out adversaries of the bill, who blasted him for much of the next year.
"The approach of the administration to the nightlife industry has been 180 degrees different than it was on other issues," Mr. Bookman said. Mr. Miller said that while the Council would hold its usual hearings on the proposed regulations, he would support the bill.
The goal of the proposed legislation is to streamline some of the current laws and, in many cases, to toughen them to "preserve, protect and promote the public health, safety and welfare and the peace and quiet of the inhabitants of the city to prevent injury to human, plant and animal life and property," according to the legislation.
The administration defines offensive sounds as noises made between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. that are seven decibels above the surrounding sound of an area. Between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., the threshold would rise to 10 decibels above the ambient noise of an area — noise that is, say, louder than the din on an elevated subway platform or substantially louder than the sounds heard at any normal Manhattan intersection.
The city would still use electronic meters when police officers and noise inspectors from the Department of Environmental Protection are called to scenes of noise. However, if inspectors or police officers heard noise that was "plainly audible," emanating from, say, a boom box, a motorcycle or a nightclub with its door open, they would have the discretion to write a ticket without having to use the meter, which is now required.
Many details still appear subject to negotiation with the City Council, such as the how to quiet pile drivers at a construction site, or faulty mufflers on cars.
But apartment dwellers who live next to nightclubs and are tormented by the thudding bass of rock bands will appreciate the addition of "bass level vibrations" to the list of recognized noise.
"It is not necessary for such person to determine the title, specific words or artist of such music," reads the proposed law, which could come as a relief to complainants unable to tell Courtney Love from Avril Lavigne.